Dying Languages Saved By The Technology That’s Killing Them

One of the victims of globalization and technology is language. No, I don’t just mean good language, as with the case of people using “ROTFLMFAO” or “R U comin??!” I mean actual languages, actually disappearing, perhaps in the thousands by the end of the century. Now these groups are finding a way to survive by turning to technology to preserve and disseminate them:

“Small languages are using social media, YouTube, text messaging and various technologies to expand their voice and expand their presence,” said K David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and a National Geographic Fellow.

“It’s what I like to call the flipside of globalisation. We hear a lot about how globalisation exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate. But a positive effect of globalisation is that you can have a language that is spoken by only five or 50 people in one remote location, and now through digital technology that language can achieve a global voice and a global audience.”

Harrison, who travels the world to seek out the last speakers of vanishing languages, has been describing his work here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

With National Geographic, he has just helped produce eight talking dictionaries.

These dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages. All the audio recordings have been made by native speakers, some of whom like Alfred “Bud” Lane are among the last fluent individuals in their native tongues.

Mr Lane speaks a language known as Siletz Dee-ni, which is restricted to a small area on the central Oregon coast.

Each language, however minor or geographically isolated, is a cultural artifact worth preserving. But are they living languages that have a role in the modern world? The story of the Tower of Babel tells us that we once had a common tongue, and our ability to communicate was baffled by an act of God in punishment for hubris. Thus, the diversity of language is another consequence of the fall.

Tribal distinctions–of which language is one of the most important–certainly are the root of much strife, past and present, but I’m unpersuaded that these tribal distinctions are always bad. I distrust globalization, because with it comes homogenization. Everything interesting becomes flattened in the name of producing some kind of monoculture. The human condition is too rich for that.

Imagine a future where all languages are erased and replaced with a kind of Esperanto. I can guarantee you that people would start creating new languages all over again as a mark of tribal identity. Look at the way children make up secret languages and codes. Languages may well die, perhaps by the thousands. In time, however, we’ll create new ones. It’s what we do.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.